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Schrödinger’s Fat Girl

Weighing Blizzard’s Overwatch and Fat Representation

image from the official Overwatch wiki

Schrödinger’s Fat Girl: A female character whose body is not available for immediate categorization, thus leading to a contradiction in fan perceptions of her body. An ambiguously bodied female character.

When Mei, an arctic scientist in a parka, was announced for Blizzard’s Overwatch characters, a friend excitedly pointed me towards her.

“Fat rep!” they exclaimed.

“Y-yeah?” I replied hesitantly, and squinted at her. She… could be fat rep, I supposed, as the character is depicted as Chinese and, thus could be said to represent a popular Chinese perception of fatness which is much smaller than my perception of fatness as an American. But Blizzard is not a Chinese company, being headquartered in California since its inception, nor was the character specifically designed for a Chinese audience. This was an American company with a global audience. Was Mei fat in either of those contexts? When the World Health Organization uses terms like “globesity”, does Mei embody this fatness? At 300lbs, could I consider Mei fat representation in media? Was she fat, I wondered, beneath the parka? She didn’t have a double chin as I did. Was she really fat compared to my American perception of fatness? I wondered, and could not tell. She was fat and not, “transgressive” and “acceptable,” simultaneously. The multiplicity of her position is the hallmark of what I’ve come to describe as Schrödinger’s Fat Girl.

Screenshot via lrush16 on Twitter

This multiplicity is expressed through “skins”, the in-game term for character outfits and appearance, and “sprays”, the in-game term for digital decals of official art and catchphrases of the characters that you can place on the environment. Overwatch is more than just what is presented within the game, however. It has a large fanbase for a series of trailers, official comics, official art, figurines, and all of the fan works that accompany these mediums. Mei does not just exists within the digital world of Overwatch, but within the overarching Overwatch community, and much of the community observes her as fat. Does this observation thus mean the character is fat? She doesn’t exist, she’s merely a perception of pixels and voice acting and media.

The concept of Schrödinger’s Fat Girl is not limited to Overwatch, it was merely the first place that I was able to adequately name the phenomenon as I observed it. Not precisely what is referred to as a ‘corporeal absence’ by Jana Evans Braziel, but an ambiguous presence that reveals the trembling frailty of our definition and perception of fatness.

In the American fat activist community, Mei might be what is called a “small fat”. A small fat is someone who is, as the name suggests, not quite thin, not particularly fat, small in their fatness. They still experience discrimination, but it isn’t on the scale that a so-called “super fat” experiences. Because of this, they exist in two spaces, highly visible in representation from characters like Mei, but largely apart from the organized and much more radical fat activist communities. In many ways, chubby girls are weighed twice, once where they are found too fat to be thin, and again when they are found too thin to be fat and thus a part of our community.

But Mei’s ambiguous body is further complicated by her outfits, or skins. In her parka, it’s much easier to read Mei as “fat” and fans definitely do. In response to a Lunar New Year skin, many players were upset that Mei seemed much thinner out of her parka. This in turn sparked angry responses from fans of chubby Mei and thin Mei alike.

Screenshot via lrush16 on Twitter

The ambiguity of Mei’s body can also be read in new players. One GameFAQ’s thread is titled “Noob here. Is the character Mei fat?” and explains that all of the fan drawings they’ve seen have had her chubby, but in the official art, she is wearing that “huge ass coat so it’s hard to tell.” The replies come to no consensus but rather devolve into arguments about whether Blizzard’s art of Mei has depicted her as fat or not. On reddit, another user asks “Is Mei fat?” and stresses they don’t care, they’re just curious and can’t tell because of her large coat. On the official Overwatch forums, another user explains at length how Mei can’t be fat because she has “too much discipline” to be so “unhealthy”. Other fans were so upset by the Lunar New Year skin that Blizzard had to fix it in a patch. Still others stress that Mei can be whatever you want her to be. Indeed, in many ways, they are right. She’s fictional, she exists only as we perceive her, not as an individual. Because of the vast amount of both canon and fan-made art of Mei, she exists in multiple bodies in public perception at once.

Screenshot via lrush16 on Twitter

It is important to remember, however, that Mei’s body is also perceived as feminine. As Jana Evans Braziel says in Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body while describing Luce Irigary’s conception of femininité: “All liquids seem to take the shape of a container, remaining malleable; the male therefore can funnel female liquidity into whatever space necessary within discourse. She thus can be made to serve as the essential outside of his thought.” (Bodies Out of Bounds, p 242) How we read Mei’s body likely says more about us than it does about the team who designed her. The concept of Schrödinger’s Fat Girl does not depend on intention but rather on a contradictory audience reading of the work’s multiple representations of her body, brought about by the malleable and fluid nature of reading women’s bodies. In short, what is fat for some is not for others, and the public perception of fatness is a complicated thing even within a single fictional character.

My own reaction to Mei as “not fat” is no less valid than another’s reading of her body as “fat” because there is nothing declarative on her fatness or thinness, either from the company or the fans. She exists as both outcomes to the same question. Is Mei fat or thin? The answer is yes.

Kiva Bay is a writer and fat activist.